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The Tale Of Genji

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3258 words Published: 10th May 2017

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Lady Murasaki was born in about 978 in Kyoto, Japan. She’s known as a Japanese poet, novelist and a maid of honor of the imperial court. Her real name is unknown. It is thought that she was called Murasaki after the heroine in her novel. However, some scholars are speculating that her given name might have been Fujiwara Takako. The name was recorded as lady-in-waiting ranked shoji on the 29th day of the 1st month, Kanko 4.Mido Kampaku Ki said that it was written in the memoir of Fujiwara no Michinaga but many do not support the theory. In her own memoir, The Murasaki Shikibu Diary, it was stated she was nicknamed Murasaki after the character in the narrative, whereas the name Shikibu refers to her father’s position in the Bureau of Ceremony. After the death of Lady Murasaki’s husband, she considered devoting her life to spiritual service, but then became a courtier to the empress Joto Mon’in. She pleased the court with her beautiful verses, as is clear from the diary she kept from 1007 to 1010, the foremost basis of information about her life. The Tale of Genji was written sometime between 1001 and 1010. The novel demonstrates her compassion to human emotions, her love of nature, and her knowledge in various subjects. She died in Kyoto in about 1014. (The Tale of Genji – Introduction 2001)

B. The Tale of Genji: Background

This book was published somewhere around the year one thousand eleven. It was created for the purpose of entertainment for the upper class women of aristocracy. It consists of 54 chapters with events that are unparalleled to the Heian era that extended from 794 AD to 1191, between the Nara and Kamakura eras. (The Tale of Genji – Introduction 2001) It was a relatively long period of peace and political strength lasting nearly 400 years, until 1185. The Fujiwara family, to which the author is a member of its northern branch, is one of the most influential clans then. Their clan members married emperors that resulted to their clan dominating the royal family. When they get to the throne, they rule in behalf of the offspring of these unions. Furthermore, besides that they had control of the politics, they also dominated the cultural atmosphere of this era. Fujiwara courtiers encouraged a characteristic of chivalrous sophistication and sensitivity in all of their activities, involving the religious practices, and the visual and literary arts. This refined sensibility and interest in the arts is clearly expressed in the Tale of Genji.(Heian Period (794-1185) 2002)

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The society portrayed in the story is one of a privileged cluster of nobles that would be around 5,000 in number. The emperor is seen at the center of the world and the people are not interested in anything but leisure. Given that they were preoccupied with their upbringing and level in society, they were deeply sensitive to nature’s beauty, the art of poetry, music, calligraphy and fine clothing. Heian courtiers didn’t know much about the outside world and didn’t bother. They also didn’t like travelling and the common people were very looked down on. (Emmot, Background of The Tale of Genji 2010)

C. 54 Chapters

This book consists of 54 chapters. And it plays a big role in the world’s realm of literature. It is considered as one of the finest books of Japanese literature, past and even till the present times. (The Tale of Genji – Introduction 2001)

Kiritsubo (“Paulownia Pavilion”)

Hahakigi (“Broom Tree”)

Utsusemi (“Cicada Shell”)

Yugao (“Twilight Beauty”)

Wakamurasaki or WakaMurasaki (“Young Murasaki”)

Suetsumuhana (“Safflower”)

Momiji no Ga (“Beneath the Autumn Leaves”)

Hana no En (“Under the Cherry Blossoms”)

Aoi (“Heart-to-Heart”)

Sakaki (“Green Branch”)

Hana Chiru Sato (“Falling Flowers”)

Suma (“Suma”; a place name)

Akashi (“Akashi”; another place name)

Miotsukushi (“Pilgrimage to Sumiyoshi”)

Yomogiu (“Waste of Weeds”)

Sekiya (“At The Pass”)

E Awase (“Picture Contest”)

Matsukaze (“Wind in the Pines”)

Usugumo (“Wisps of Cloud”)

Asagao (“Bluebell”)

Otome (“Maidens”)

Tamakazura (“Tendril Wreath”)

Hatsune (“Warbler’s First Song”)

Kocho (“Butterflies”)

Hotaru (“Fireflies”)

Tokonatsu (“Pink”)

Kagaribi (“Cressets”)

Nowaki (“Typhoon”)

Miyuki (“Imperial Progress”)

Fujibakama (“Thoroughwort Flowers”)

Makibashira (“Handsome Pillar”)

Umegae (“Plum Tree Branch”)

Fuji no Uraha (“New Wisteria Leaves”)

I Wakana: Jo (“Spring Shoots I”)

II Wakana: Ge (“Spring Shoots II”)

Kashiwagi (“Oak Tree”)

Yokobue (“Flute”)

Suzumushi (“Bell Cricket”)

Yugiri (“Evening Mist”)

Minori (“Law”)

Maboroshi (“Seer”)

Nio no Miya (“Perfumed Prince”)

Kobai (“Red Plum Blossoms”)

Takekawa (“Bamboo River”)

Hashihime (“Maiden of the Bridge”)

Shigamoto (“Beneath the Oak”)

Agemaki (“Trefoil Knots”)

Sawarabi (“Bracken Shoots”)

Yadorigi (“Ivy”)

Azumaya (“Eastern Cottage”)

Ukifune (“A Drifting Boat”)

Kagero (“Mayfly”)

Te’narai (“Writing Practice”)

Yume no Ukihashi (“Floating Bridge of Dreams”)

In some manuscripts, one additional chapter may be found in between chapters 41 and 42. This chapter is named Kumogakure, or “Vanished into the Clouds”. This chapter is left blank where only a title appears which elucidates Genji’s death. (Chiappa 2011)

Organization of the Narrative

The story is conventionally divided into three parts: the life of Genji found on the first two segments, and the early years of Niou and Kaoru, the two prominent descendants of Genji.

The story of Genji’s early life; his rise and fall

A. Youth, chapters 1-33: Love, romance, and exile

B. Triumph and obstacles, chapters 34-41: A watch of power and death of his beloved wife

The transition (chapters 42-44): Short chapters after Genji’s death

The story of Genji’s descendants chapters 45-53: Niou and Kaoru

In addition, Chapter 54, Yume no Ukihashi (The Floating Bridge of Dreams) does continue the story from the chapters previous to it. Conversely, the happenings within the said chapter have no relation at all with the title. A probable explanation to that is because the chapter wasn’t finished; it may be noted that the book ends abruptly at mid-sentence. (Goff 1991)


Thesis statement

While The Tale of Genji is parallel to the Heian era, and Genji even considered a hero by some; the storyline isn’t apt to the modern times, as his persona far opposes the ideals of a true modern hero.

A Synopsis of The Tale of Genji

The tale begins when the emperor and a low-ranking consort bore a child and was named Genji. In order to obtain political backing, Genji is married to the daughter of a high-ranking court official at a very young age of 12. He then seeks love and companionship somewhere else as he fails to get along with his aloof and aristocratic wife. Genji’s romantic adventures include: his unsuccessful pursuit of a married woman named Utsusemi; his affair with mysterious Yugao, whom he encounters one summer evening in the Fifth ward; and the discovery of his lifelong companion named Murasaki.

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Genji’s actions and amorous ways soon proves his undoing and his wife, Lady Aoi becomes possessed by the jealous spirit of his mistress, Lady Rokujo, and dies after giving birth to a son, Yugiri. When Genji’s affair with the current emperor’s favorite consort, Oborozukiyo, becomes known, he is forced into exile at Suma. His loneliness and troublesome existence takes a turn when he moves across the bay of Akashi and meets a young lady who is destined to bear his only daughter.

The middle section of the story begins with the plans of celebration for Genji’s fortieth birthday. A disastrous train of events however begins, when he is reluctant to agree to marry the third daughter of Sukazu emperor and when Kashiwagi, an unsuccessful suitor, proves to be unable to forget the Third Princess. Kashiwagi’s obsession, through a single meeting that leads to the birth of Genji’s putative son Kaorou, culminates. Through a fatal decline, the guilt-stricken courtier leaves his wife in the care of Yugiri, who then becomes obsessed with his friend’s wife, Princess Ochiba, and results to the jealousy of his own wife. The second part of the work draws to an end as Genji mourns the death of his beloved, Murasaki.(Goff 1991)

In-depth Analysis of Genji’sLife

First and foremost, the narrative mostly dwelled on Genji and his complex amorous life. He spends much of his time writing poems to women he is attracted to; most of them know that nothing positive would come of an affair with him, and so resist the impulse as much as possible. But as much as they try to resist though, these women often reciprocated similar feelings towards him. This gives us the notion that he is a charismatic and charming man because most of the girls he aimed to pursue have developed feelings towards him. His numerous affairs with various women are often from outside the court, a behavior that is very detrimental to his position in the law court. So his affairs are kept in complete concealment, which he took considerable trouble to maintain. It is on the field of love, and not on the political field, that The Tale of Genji centers on.

Each affair that he had is significantly different in character from the others. This made the story quite exciting and unpredictable. Genji seemingly shows to have no particular ideal woman for all the women he aimed to pursue were all different from each another. Moreover, his notion of “love” seems to be very shallow. For instance, there was this princess that he bombarded with love letters only after hearing her play beautiful music on the zither. He has quite a flawed notion of love. He only acknowledges it with the fluttery feeling when it in fact is a very profound word. Consequently, it may be stated that he enjoyed this fluttery feeling so much that he was in constant successive search of someone more to “love”. During the present time, these kinds of liaisons aren’t accepted as it was then.

The women during the Heian era, on the one hand, are customarily housebound. They are rather conservative as they were to be seen only by two men in their entire life: their father and their husband. Much of their adult life was spent in isolation in dark rooms that are hidden behind an array of blinds, fans and screens. When they go out they would have to ride an ox-drawn carriage that only had one little slit where they could peek out. The only freedom they have is their occasional pilgrimages to Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines. Despite this isolated housebound life, there is an option that givesthem a different and more unconventional way of life: to enter the court service and become a lady-in-waiting for the empress or another royal concubine. Being a lady-in-waiting they are free to have several relationships with the gentlemen at court, which was embodied in the narrative.

Gentlemen during the Heian era, on the other hand, are freer to do what they want as compared to women. Men with high ranks during this era were allowed to be polygamous. They were given a handful of concubines to play with during pastime. Their first wife would be an arranged marriage where the woman would just be used for political reasons. Moreover, men then were not interested in the physical appearances of women. They have a very different sense of attraction. Due to the fact that they only had very rare chances of seeing them, their standards of a woman are quite unusual. The only aspect that men find alluring is their hair. The hair as they say must be very thick and longer than the actual height of the woman. Their value of a woman’s hair is the reason why in the storyline, Genji didn’t approve of Murasaki being tonsured when she was ill. As you can see, there are a lot of parallelisms of the narrative with the Heian period. Most historians who unravel the past of the Japanese during the Heian era would base it on the Tale of Genji.Breeding also was a very sought after attribute that drove men crazy. They wanted women who could write poems and were very skilled calligraphists. They had certain trends with regard to fashion: their sleeves must be overlapping each other and the color of their robes must be matching at all times. The sleeves of their robes must be seen protruding from under the carriage. (Emmot, Background of The Tale of Genji 2010)

Seduction played a big role in The Tale of Genji because most of the time it was considered as rape without any conformity from the woman. After the said gathering, the men would have left before the break of dawn; sending poems afterwards were a customary thing. Genji, also, took care of his women even after his interest has worn out, thus some people see him as a hero.

There’s only one specific law of marriage that governed them, and it’s that men could not have two formal wives. This didn’t prevent men from visiting a lot of various women, which provides much of the storyline behind the Genji being a Don Juan. Accordingly, this kind of tradition of men having a polygamous nature is not considered rude during this era. (Cultural Significance of The Tale of Genji n.d.)

“In his early adventures, Genji seems rather selfish and unfeeling, but later we see him become a true Heian hero who takes care of his ladies even when he has lost interest in them.” (Gillespie 2007) In the English version of The Tale of Genji (Waley 1973), Genji says “And one more thing: suppose you get married and find that the match is not altogether a success. There will be moments at which you will be tempted to throw the whole thing over. But do not act rashly. Think out the situation afresh each time that it appears to you insupportable. Probably you will find that there is a very good reason for hanging on a little longer. Even if you have lost all affection for the lady herself, you may perhaps feel that for the sake of her parents you ought to make one more effort…. Or even if she has no parents or other supporters to whom you are under an obligation, you will very likely find on reflection that she has some small trick of speech or manner that still attracts you. It will in the end possibly be best both for you and for her if you can keep things going even in the most precarious way.”

Some people consider Genji as a hero merely because despite his numerous love affairs, he showed some respect for women, as he didn’t leave them right away even when his attraction for them already faded. It was stated that, “The way Genji moved four women at a time is like a hero or revolutionary from this aspect. Murasaki Shikibu tried to illustrate Genji as “hero” instead of Genji as “play boy.” For Murasaki, men that had relationships with several different women did not attract too much attention to themselves because having multiple relationships was considered normal behavior during their time. Murasaki probably tried to create a person who had ability to support several different women. Even though what Genji did was allowed in ancient society, it is definitely not acceptable today.”(Cultural Significance of The Tale of Genji n.d.)

Genji may have some commendable traits indeed. But Genji being considered as a “hero” is very debatable, especially during the modern times. Setouchi Jakucho, a popular authority icon in Japan is an expert on the tale. She then made a speech in the United States where the New York Times interviewed her. The article starts with: As Japanese heroes go, he is an unusual one. He never wore a tie, never got a job, and after seducing his stepmother when he was a teen-ager he had a string of affairs with women who included his own adopted daughter.(Tyler n.d.)

In accordance to the article, which was published in the newspapers across America, Setouchi “sees in the novel a strong feminist voice, protesting the conditions of women at the time” and states that “the key figures” in the tale are “the women whom [Genji] uses and discards.” “While Genji’s liaisons are normally described as seductions,” the interviewer wrote, “Ms. Setouchi scoffs at that. ‘It was all rape, not seduction,’ she says.” No wonder another New York Times writer, reviewing the memoirs of a prostitute, should have casually stated in 2001, “Sex memoirs are nearly as old as the world’s oldest profession. The 11th-century “The Tale of Genji” is a biographical account of the sexual exploits of a Japanese prince in the demimonde.”(Tyler n.d.)


There are a lot of different views and opinions about the character of Genji. Some people widely disagree about him being a hero and push his being a play boy in the story. However, there are also some who say that The Tale of Genji still has much to be commended about.

On the bright side, The Tale of Genji that “root of experience,” those transcendent touches of “crudeness” or “coarseness,” which anchor grace and beauty in lived human truth, are there after all. They take the tale to the heights of the sublime.(Tyler n.d.) And it was said (Gillespie 2007) that the winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata named The The Tale of Genji “the highest pinnacle of Japanese literature. Even down to our day there has not been a piece of fiction to compare with it.”

This story set upon the Heian era, gave us a window of Japan’s past; such a period where we can gain a lot of lessons from because it widely varies with our present times. Women being ostracized and men given more privileges are thankfully now a thing of the past. Genji may be a hero of their time but he is definitely not in the modern times. Contemporary ideal of a hero is someone who has contributed to his nation, someone who has done something for the common good. It has especially nothing to do with relationships and myriad love affairs. Nevertheless, viewing the story as a whole, it can serve as a draw line for comparisons and further betterment in people’s tradition, culture, and lifestyle.


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